NOTE TO READERS: The Rome 2014 trip begins with post #30. Posts #10—29 were Rome 2013. Posts 1–9 were Florence 2011. If you'd like to be notified of new postings by email, let me know at

Saturday, November 15, 2014

41—The Sacred Fires of Spin

So in ancient Rome, you might be surprised to know, the center of power was not the military but the sacred fire. For all the
Setting foot on La Via Sacra,
the main street in ancient Rome,
through the Roman Forum
glories of conquest, Romans had not yet discovered the power to be had from damming great rivers, fracking, strip mining, or just blowing the tops off mountains. Fire was, therefore, a big deal. If it went out, there you were, in the dark—no matter if you lived in a hut or mammoth palazzo. The belief was that as long as the sacred fire remained burning in the great hall of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, Rome would remain standing.

The Hall of Vesta, Goddess of the Hearth
Inside the Roman Forum
So no surprise, keeping the sacred fire burning was a big deal.

What is a surprise, unless you think about it, is who was entrusted to keep the fire burning. 

The keeper of the flame wasn't some buffed up dude who trained at the 24-hour Hercules Fitness Center. 
The keepers of the sacred fire were six (the precise number is debatable) women. 

Chosen from rich families as girls when between the ages of 6 and 10, they served a thirty-year term and retired with great prestige and a healthy pension.

During their terms, they enjoyed great respect, lived in their own private quarters in the Temple of Vesta, and earned their keep by various sacred duties which included cooking up food for sacrificial occasions, as mola salsa. Recipe here included as it was used back in the day for sacrifice when not pig was handy. FYI in case you run out of pork.
Three rooms to the left, with the kitchen tucked away
to the right of the statue of Vesta by the wall.
Note, that's Caligula's pad covering the hillside.

Vestals got to ride around in their own cool carts, and traffic had to pull over to let them through. Being one of the chosen also gave them magical powers and influence. It's said they could stop a runaway slave with their thoughts. Or even intercede on the behalf of an influential person who was getting bum treatment from another influential person. 

A vestal didn’t have to take an oath as others did because her word was inviolate. So the vestals kept the wills of important people like Julius Caesar.

The catch to all this…isn’t there always one? A vestal had this job for 30 years, during which time she was not allowed to marry and had to remain chaste. To violate the rule of celibacy was treason, as they were married to the state. When the vestal was allowed to marry after her term, she was given away by the Pontifex Maximus, head of state.  

Gardens for the Vestals
Pools for the Vestals
Romans, big on punishment, were no nonsense people when it came to maintaining their fire and the virginity of their vestals. Letting the fire go out led to a good scourging for the vestal. 

Committing treason by sex meant death. Er, no, wait…turns out the execution of this penalty was complicated because it involved a conflict between civic and religious law. The conversation among the spin masters of the time probably went something like this:

“Okay, ancient law says spilling a vestal’s blood is forbidden and also that we have to bury her inside the city. Except Roman law says no one is to be buried in the city. We’re screwed…unless…hey, here's a thought—we take her out to the Camus Sceleratus (Evil Field) and bury her alive. Except we give the bitch some food. And we don’t call it burying alive. We just let her ‘descend into a habitable room.’ No one would want to live like that. So she dies willingly. Mission accomplished, asses covered.”
A wall in the forum.
Imagine this all around you.

The temple and quarters of the Vestal Virgins in the Roman Forum must have been impressive. Each had her own room, with a nice common space inside and out, gardens, three pools, and a good-sized brick kitchen for cooking up the sacred goodies. 
The Model Vestals

don't know if the bars currently on the vestals quarters are from ancient times. But if not, they were clearly present then in the form of restriction. I imagine how cool it must have felt to being chose at six or seven and have everyone showering you with honor. But guarding a flame and cooking up mola salsa might not seem so glamorous by the time you were sixteen or twenty-seven. In fact, history tells us that quite a number chose being buried alive.

The really good vestals got remembered in stone. 
I wonder where their arms and heads have gone.

I suppose it's a matter of preference as to whether being buried alive is better than bars. Metaphorically speaking, it could be the same thing.

Across the street from the old forum is the place where Mussolini stood to address his fascists followers.
It's said that he won hearts and minds by getting the trains to run on time.
I can think of some in our time who rose to power on less.
Which raises the question: can we bury ourselves?

When I left the movie theater tonight at the piazza Campo dei Fiori (field of flowers), teenagers were gathered on the steps under the statue of Giordano Bruno. 
On February 17, 1600, Bruno was executed on that spot.

A Domincan friar, mathematician, and philosopher, Giordano made the mistake of going beyond even Copernicus to state that the stars were distant suns surrounded by their own planets. He also believed the universe to be infinite with no celestial body at its center. A pantheist, he disputed the church doctrine of the Trinity and transubstantiation. 

So he was burned—naked, gagged, and tied to a stake.

And there he was tonight huddled and dark under his Dominical cowl, hovering over scores of young people born to a world with theories of multiverses, quarks, and light, like history, behaves as either a particle or wave, depending on how you look at it.

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